NEXT 1998 -- Kobe, Lindros, A-Rod, Kordell

Kobe Bryant

He is 19, and he has a book to read, and he has a BMW to drive, and he has a floppy hat to wear, and he has a generation to carry, and, well, he wants the job.

He was raised in Italy, and when he was 8 years old, his cousin called from the States, hyperventilating over something he had just seen on television "You won't believe it," his cousin said.

"Believe what?"

"Believe Air."

So they sent him a videotape -- Airmail, of course -- and it reached him at his house next to the soccer field, and he ripped it open and watched a certain No. 23 dunk and a certain No. 23 wag his tongue, and so Kobe Bryant gets a zero for originality.

He is almost grown up now, and he can read cue cards in two languages, and the networks are campaigning for him, and David Stern endorses him too, partly because No. 23 is edging toward the door and they need someone else who can touch the top of the backboard. He gets the nomination … whether he likes it or not.

Of course he likes it; the question is whether we like it. He is still a sixth man, and he has never dominated a playoff game, and he keeps forgetting one detail—passing the ball—and he has just alienated the league's premier power forward, although that you can blame on youth. After all, it wasn't his fault he started the All-Star Game: 12-year-olds everywhere stuffed the ballot box. There he is at the Garden, and NBC wants him and No. 23 to go one-on-one whenever possible, and four mini-cams are in his face, and the kid can't turn back now … so he waves off Karl Malone to go it alone.

It wasn't out of disrespect -- the kid actually calls Magic Johnson "Mister Johnson" --but this is our future, and our future is 6-7 and growing, and our future scores 17 a game off the bench, and our future scored 1,100 on his SATs, and our future could have gone to Duke and gotten 4.0s but went pro instead, and our future has no tattoos, and our future has no earrings.

And our future does not drink, and our future does not chase women and our future is … reading philosophy. The book is called Plutarch's Moralia, and Kobe Bryant was reading it in some Ritz-Carlton one day after a morning shootaround, and the quote that caught his eye was " … those who are serious in ridiculous matters will be ridiculous in serious matters."

He found it "totally true" and decided he'd rather be serious in serious matters, and if he was ever going to be the next No. 23 … well, he knew he shouldn't have been so serious (when he told Karl Malone to clear out) in such a ridiculous matter (an All-Star Game).

In other words, our future is a work-in-progress, and our future wants to learn to pass, and our future wants to get his shooting percentage above freezing, and our future takes foreign language courses at UCLA, and our future wants to raise his future children in Europe, and our future gets out of his BMW every time he sees a kid wearing his KB 8 sneakers … and thanks him. "I say, 'Nice sneaks, how's your game?' " our future says.

Our future also does not celebrate after dunks, and our future wears that floppy hat and sunglasses so he can go see a movie in peace, and our future has been assigned Mister Johnson's old locker, and our future respects the '70s, and our future knows about … Pistol Pete Maravich?

When he was a kid in Italy, his cousins sent him tapes other than Come Fly With Me; his favorite video was NBA Showmen. He says Earl Monroe gave him his spin move, and that Pistol Pete gave him "all my tricks," and isn't it great that our future knows about our past?

In Italy, they tried to turn him into a soccer goalie, but he would come home after school, eat a Pop-Tart, play basketball, watch his basketball videos, do his homework, say hello to his father, Jelly Bean (who was playing professionally over there) … and then watch G-rated TV.

"I was raised by a great family," he says. "I just saw The Godfather and Scarface for the first time last year. Growing up, it was all Babes in Toyland and Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Those are things kids should be exposed to. You don't need to see all this violence."

But he moved from Italy to Philly at the age of 14, and he saw his violence all right. They asked him if he wanted to smoke dope, and he said no, and they asked him if he wanted to party and he said no. Even before he read the book, he had been serious in a serious matter.

"As long as I had my basketball there with me, I could escape," our future remembers about that day in Philly when he was offered a joint. "I was, 'Bye.' "

Bye, and back to his room to watch the Pearl and Pistol and No. 23.

Bye, and five years later … hello.

Kordell Stewart
By Rick Telander

Somebody should have noticed.

Kordell Stewart dropped back from his own 36, eluded a rush, sighted his man downfield and let it fly. The football arced 74 yards --about the distance from the leftfield wall at Yankee Stadium to first base --and fell into the hands of Michael Westbrook for the last-second touchdown that gave Colorado a 27-26 win over Michigan. This was in 1994, and everybody should have known right away what it meant. But everybody didn't know. That's because people are still in need of having their senses jarred by the transcendence of this 6-1, 212-pound quarterback. The 25-year-old Pittsburgh Steelers leader, who beats on his drum set when he's not beating on overmatched defenders, sometimes wonders if anyone has noticed the amazing things he can do on the gridiron.

"I know I have an arm," he says. "But I had to get a chance to play quarterback in the NFL."

And why was that?

Oh, who knows, says Stewart,as if we don't. Partly because of the stereotyping that says blacks should play positions other than quarterback. Partly because he was coming from a sometime-option team at Colorado. And partly—heck, largely—because he was too good an athlete. Drafted in the second round by the Steelers in 1995, Stewart was observed by coach Bill Cowher, analyzed, and then cautiously set on the field the way a weasel is carefully set in a henhouse. Thus was created "Slash." This was the name Cowher gave to Stewart to show that the kid with the 4.4 speed, cannon arm, glove-soft hands, tailback moves and eagle vision was a wideout/running back/option-dropback QB/gamebreaker. Lining up all over the place, Stewart simply scared foes into submission. He ran for an 80-yard touchdown, the longest by a quarterback in NFL history. Then he ran for a 74-yarder. He caught passes, including one for a 71-yard TD. He threw passes and racked up a 317-yard game, a 232-yard first half and a pair of three-touchdown games. Just for kicks, so to speak, he punted once, for 41 yards.

This past season Cowher simply gave Stewart the ball and said, "Run the team." And why not? "Hey, they don't hold speed and agility against Brett Favre, Steve Young or Mark Brunell, do they?" Stewart says. "And look at John Elway—even at 37, he can move."

But none can move like Stewart. The Slash handle has faded, and "NFL Prototype Quarterback of the Future" has emerged. In an odd twist, Stewart has finally been able to live down his physical skills and at the same time prove that a remarkably adroit quarterback is a lot better suited to the nuances of today's league than a lead-footed robot.
"I always knew I could play quarterback," he says. "I mean I've only been doing it my whole life. But what I think it's going to come down to is this: All of the best quarterbacks at this level have to be fast and athletic because of the speed of the defenses. You have guys like Big Daddy Wilkinson and Warren Sapp running down guys like Steve Young and weighing over 300 pounds. Do you want somebody who throws the ball away all the time or falls on his face to avoid sacks? Or do you want somebody who can bring that extra dimension, that extra threat? I mean, what do you want?"

We want you, Kordell. Indeed, it's no accident that Stewart has rekindled Steeler fans' thoughts of their beloved Hall of Fame helmsman Terry Bradshaw, another quarterback who had to prove to all that he was the future of the league and not its bane. Stewart ran for 11 touchdowns in '97, breaking Bradshaw's team record set a quarter-century ago. This year he also became the first quarterback since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger who, without ever having previously started an NFL game at quarterback, started every game of a season and led his team to the conference championship game.

The thing about this young man from New Orleans is that he knows tragedy—both his mother and older sister died young from cancer—and he knows hard work: These days he will barely leave new offensive coordinator Ray Sherman's office as the two men endlessly break down film in the dark. But he knows above all that a gift is something that must be used, or else it's squandered. Why, for instance, shouldn't a quarterback be faster than hell? Stewart is a guy who, at long last, makes opponents think about the full range of danger presented by the quarterback position. And just now something novel has occurred to him. "Hmm, maybe I should run down the line of scrimmage and throw the ball up in the air—and catch it myself."

He chuckles.

Hey, it's all there for the taking.

Alex Rodriguez
By Tim Kurkjian

The date of birth must be a typo: 7/27/75. Someone who is so often compared to the best shortstops in history, who says all the right things, who does so many great things, cannot possibly be only 22.

But according to the birth certificate, he is a double-deuce. The record books say something else: No shortstop has ever topped his 59 homers, 207 RBI and 391 hits in two consecutive seasons; the last American League righthanded batter to hit as high as his .358 in '96 was Joe DiMaggio (.381 in '39); the last AL shortstop to win a batting title was Lou Boudreau in 1944.

That's on the field. Off the field, he loves working with kids, reads Gabriel García Márquez, hangs with Cal Ripken and claims Will Hunting as a hero. Like Will, he's a genius. Unlike Will, he's unfailingly polite and considerate. Good Alex Rodriguez.

And he'll get better. He is already a step up the evolutionary ladder from Ripken and Robin Yount, the men who 16 years ago, turned shortstop into an offensive position. In '96, Rodriguez had 215 hits with 36 homers, 54 doubles, 123 RBI and 141 runs, a season the likes of which Ripken, Yount, Ernie Banks and Honus Wagner never had. "I marvel at it, but I think I can do it again,'' Rodriguez says. Last year, playing with bruised ribs, he hit "just" .300 with "only" 23 homers and 84 runs batted in. "I was prouder of '97 than '96,'' he says, "because I played through pain."

Defensively, he is still learning the position, but because he's probably the best athlete in the game, he is frequently brilliant. "I'd rather hit .250—well, .280—and make 10 errors than break all the records and be subpar defensively," he says.

Three years ago against Baltimore, Rodriguez deftly avoided a runner, then sidearmed a bullet to first to complete a double play. Cal and Billy Ripken looked at each other and mouthed the same word: Wow. "What amazes me,'' says Mariners infielder Jeff Huson, "is how big he is. He doesn't look big in uniform, but the first day I saw him without his shirt, I said, 'Whoa.' "

Wow. Whoa. Whew. Rodriguez has heard these virtually all his life. "I saw him in high school,'' says Cubs general manager Ed Lynch. "He was the biggest kid on the field and also the fastest kid. He made a throw … well, it was like a Double-A player against 17-year-olds."

At 6-3, 208 pounds, he is also deceptively fast -- 29 stolen bases in 35 attempts. The Mariners won't be moving him to third base any time soon. "He'll be a shortstop for a long, long time," Ripken says.

Every winter, Rodriguez visits Ripken's home and plays basketball in Cal's gym for a few days. "I'm building a gym too,'' Rodriguez says. "I'm a bachelor. All I need is a gym and a bedroom." He says that Ripken is his mentor "for the same reason that Kobe Bryant has latched on to Michael Jordan. He's the best ambassador we have.'' For Ripken, the friendship is stimulating because he has found someone who understands what it's like to be a big shortstop. "He's very curious about my whole career, how I've been consistent,'' Ripken says. "That's strange for a guy so young. It makes me feel good to serve in an adviser role. The game is less of a sport than it was 15 years ago. Now if you make a mistake, it can brand your career. I've told him it's more important now more than ever to be careful."

Rodriguez has listened well, which is why he's the ideal player to steer the game into the next century. Not only is he the player every general manager would select to begin his franchise, but he has brains, good sense, good looks and a catchy nickname: ARod.

"I'm very observant," he says. "Since I was 14, I saw guys I wanted to be like -- Ripken, Dan Marino, Joe Montana -- and guys I didn't want to be like. If you come to the big leagues too cocky and say stupid things, you will build enormous resentment among teammates.'' Instead, ARod is respectful of those who came before him. "He asks me to tell him about Tony Fernandez and Barry Larkin, and what makes them so good,'' says Mariners coach John McLaren.

"I'm also very inquisitive," ARod says. "I want to learn. That's why we study history. That's why we go to school." He went to Miami-Dade College in the off-season to continue his quest for a degree in broadcast communications. He talks about the two A's he received as proudly as the .358 he hit. "I keep telling my girlfriend, 'You've got to get your masters,' '' he says. "And I want her to keep pushing me to get my degree. I want that piece of paper."

There is nothing ordinary about Rodriguez: not his game, not his poise, not his awareness at such a young age. "There is a difference between image and reputation,'' he says.

"Image is nice. Reputation is developed over an entire career. Reputation is what I'm searching for."

He has found it at that improbable age. And there's no indication he'll ever lose it.

Eric Lindros
By Dan Shaughnessy

While Kobe, Alex and Kordell are relatively new to the pressures of potential, Eric Lindros knows all about Next. Lindros could teach Introductory Next 101. Before he was 18, Lindros was dubbed The Next One by hockey wise guys and scribes who scout the kids on Canadian ponds. The nickname didn't leave a lot of room for error, and heaven knows, the game is hard enough without folks carving your face into hockey's Mount Rushmore before you've skated a shift as a professional.

Now 25, in his sixth NHL season as star center of the Philadelphia Flyers, Lindros has an MVP award and a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals on his resumé, but there are still questions about his place in the pantheon of hockey superstars. Is The Next One a worthy successor to The Great One and to Mr. Gretzky's peers, Messrs. Howe, Orr and Lemieux? Anaheim's Paul Kariya plays a faster game. Pittsburgh's octopus-like Jaromir Jagr is a more fluid skater and stickhandler. And there's even a case to be made for Colorado's Peter Forsberg, who was swapped (along with five other players, two draft picks, $15 million and some French/English dictionaries) for Lindros in hockey's trade of the decade.

But if there's going to be a story about Next, you can't exclude The Next One. "Eric has got to wear the crown," says Bobby Orr. "No question. Some of the players who've been wearing that crown for a while are getting up there in age. Eric is the guy now."

When asked about his nickname, The Next One makes one of those Nancy Kerrigan "something smells" faces. "I don't know who started it. I try not to get too excited about things I can't control. Whatever." Whatever? Okay, so he's not exactly Letterman guest material. But Gretzky, a teammate on the Canadian Olympic team, knows how the legend game is played.

"It's the reality of sports," says The Great One. "Guy Lafleur had it when he came in. I had it. Mario had it. And Eric had it. People want to hang that mantle on the next guy, and that's just a fact of sports that's never going to change."

When Lindros' Flyers knocked the Penguins out of the playoffs in Lemieux's farewell last spring, Mario officially passed the torch during the traditional post-series, conga-line handshake. The defeated Lemieux told Lindros, "It's your turn now," then skated into retirement.

This is the way it was supposed to work out for Carl and Bonnie Lindros' oldest son. Carl was a football and hockey guy who played in the CFL and had a cup of cocoa in the Blackhawks' system. Bonnie was a track star from Chatham, Ont., and they raised their three kids an hour-and-a-half from Toronto in London. The Legend of Eric begins with Carl converting the family swimming pool into a hockey rink. When the ice needed patching, Hockey Dad Lindros would drive the family wagon to an outdoor rink, find a pile of Zamboni snow residue, shovel it into the back and bring it home to fill holes in the backyard rink. Always bigger and stronger than the other kids, young Eric had a hard, accurate shot -- and he could skate. The total package. He played Junior B when he was 15. By the time he was 18, he had written an autobiography and teamed with Gretzky to win the 1991 Canada Cup.

Now 6-4, 240 with enormous, meaty hands, Lindros possesses surprising finesse. Still, his game is smashmouth hockey. He long ago decided that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, no matter who or what stands in the way. Try moving him out of the crease. Go ahead, try. He is Attitude On Ice.

"The others don't like him because he's reckless and hardened," says goalie-turned-broadcaster John Davidson. "Gretzky and Lemieux were so good with their hands. Eric's more bullish. Wayne and Mario belonged in the white cowboy suit with the white hat on the white horse. This guy's got the black horse and the black suit and the black boots and the spurs."

Derek Sanderson, who led the NHL in cockiness in the early '70s, says, "I would have loved playing against Gretzky and Lemieux, but I would have hated to play against this guy. He's going to beat your ass up." They still hate him in Quebec because he wouldn't play there. They hate him in Florida because they think he cheap-shotted center Rob Niedermayer last fall. "That's bull," said Lindros. "He had a concussion before I ran into him, and it was a clean hit."

There he goes again. Eric being Eric: mean, nasty, aloof. Strip away the expectations, reputation, folklore and imagery, and Lindros stands alone. He may not lead like Mark Messier, or skate like Jagr, or pass like Lemieux, or score like Gretzky. But Eric Lindros towers over all as hockey's Next. No one this big has ever been this good.
And his opponents fear his shadow will grow even larger.